Women in Food: Jo Ann Baumgartner and the Wild Farm Alliance Unite Conservation and Agriculture
March 2, 2015 | Rose Egelhoff
Jo Ann Baumgartner’s interest in wild farming—the practice of integrating agriculture with local ecosystems to support both high crop yields and a healthy, biodiverse environment— started when she and her husband worked their own organic farm.
Baumgartner “came from an understanding and love of wild nature,” and had always relished a chance vacation or outing that let her be in the outdoors. While farming, she began to see connections between the land she cultivated and the wild places she loved. While working on a book about California’s endangered species, she noticed that many creatures were rare precisely because of agriculture, which has replaced the natural habitat of many species with crops grown in monoculture.
Her interest in the connection between agriculture and conservation led to a master’s degree studying bird predation of insects in apple orchards, work on a conventional research farm and eventually to the Watsonville, California-based Wild Farm Alliance. The WFA was born at a 2000 meeting the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and created with the goal of helping farmers realize the benefits of using natural processes, and understand the power they have to shape their operations in ways that preserve biodiversity and fight climate change. Baumgarter now serves as WFA’s director.
Wild farming incorporates a wide variety of practices from permaculture, forest farming and other sustainable agriculture modalities. It employs intercropping with native species, supporting local food chains and habitats, and working with the natural geography of the land rather than modifying it.
Much of the WFA’s work today consists of writing reports, issuing action alerts and speaking engagements. They coordinate with sister organizations to influence policies that encourage wild farming. Much of their work is currently focusing on organic policy and food safety policy. Another branch of their work involves helping local farmers around their headquarters in Watsonville, California to install conservation projects. Besides being one of the most fun parts of the job, this work, Baumgartner explains, “helps us stay grounded” and in touch with the daily reality of farmers.
“The crux of it,” says Baumgartner, “is that we need to help farmers and others think beyond the human-centric perspective and make informed decisions based on the needs of the non-human elements that are part of our world and make it function correctly, and beautifully.”
The WFA does this by focusing on education and policy.
One aspect of their policy work has been to advocate for stricter compliance with organic certification regulations that require conservation of natural resources, including soil, water, wetlands, woodlands and wildlife. The WFA helped the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) establish a set of biodiversity inspection questions, published biodiversity conservation guides for farmers and certifiers and submitted material on assessing biodiversity conservation to the NOP for inclusion in the NOP Handbook.
Baumgartner sees a demand for this type of work. Fortunately, andfunding has never been a serious problem. Though the WFA was financed by the Foundation for Deep Ecology for the first few years of its existence, its funding now comes from a combination of foundation and government grants.
Farmers are interested in conservation, according to Baumgartner, though many do not know how to begin incorporating conservation practices into their farms.
“There are all kinds of positive things that farmers can do to support conservation and that’s why I am working in this field,” she says. “I think it’s an exciting and productive way to help farms become better at what they do, for instance by putting in habitat like elderberry plants that support both pollinators and birds. These types of changes also support the wild nature that farmers may not directly benefit from, but those animals and plants need space in our world.”